“You shouldn’t touch him so much,” Walter frowns.
“Excuse me?” His eyes are cold, dead as a shark. Etta can’t reconcile this man with the earlier version, the grandfather who stole candy, had a ‘spot of bother with his long-term memory’ and balanced precariously on a park bench. His eyes are murky in the false light of the Bullet train – at the right angle they reflect, sharp flashes of bottled lightning. Walter’s lips separate; revealing off-white teeth and a crooked incisor. Beside him, Astrid loops an arm through Walter’s, a warning noise uttered low in the back of her throat.
“Genetic attraction,” Walter states bluntly. His gaze roams across Etta’s body, the same way it did when the missing pieces of his brain were first re-integrated You, he said, recognising her - and it hadn’t sounded particularly friendly. “Documented fact, child: fifty per cent of siblings who are separated as children and reunite as adults develop a sexual attraction or incestuous relationship with their long-missing kin. Fifty per cent. Obviously, you’re not siblings, but with an age gap consisting of ten years or less the potential is there… So I reiterate, don’t touch him so much.”
“Excuse me,” Etta repeats, and well…. the term aghast pretty much covers it. This isn’t an appropriate conversation for any time.
The train roars on. The lights of the city explode into Etta’s field of vision - wink into blackness - like the stars of a passing solar system. The recycled air tastes of human bodies crowded too close; a stench that permeats through the carriage regardless of how empty the train is. There’s no sense of speed, just the slow rocking lullaby of sideways motion.
Astrid visibly winces. Her hand tightens around Walter’s forearm like a boa constrictor. “I would apologise for him, but you should learn to expect this. And Walter! Ew!”
“There are two school’s of thought regarding this phenomenon of course. Genetic attraction being one; or secondly, the need to establish an intimate connection being the other. Children, infants, bond by touch, siblings even more so, when you’re eight or nine years old that contact is freely given and, more importantly, innocently given. There is no ulterior motive. But adults trying to rebuild the early missing contact misinterpret their physical cues, see different layers, and before you know it….”
“I haven’t had enough alcohol to listen to this yet,” Astrid bemoans and bumps Walter with her shoulder, none-too-gently.
“Alcohol’s a banned substance,” Etta replies faintly. She’s still stuck on incest and (more hopefully) thoughts of derailment.
“Excuse me?” Peter says, hearing the tail end of the conversation as he re-enters the carriage. “That might be the worst injustice I’ve heard yet.”
“Alcohol?" Astrid answers sweetly. "Be thankful you weren’t here for the early part of the conversation.”
Walter shifts, making room as Peter collapses into the seat beside him. He throws an arm around his son’s shoulders, thigh to thigh, feet tap-dancing a nonsensical routine. Walter whispers conspiratorially. “We could make a still, you and I?”
“Nice sentiment. But I’ll settle for finding Olivia first.”
Dad, Etta said, and the word had felt right, unforced. She was three when they vanished off the radar, leaving her behind. She doesn’t have memories to call her own so much as sensations. If recall is nothing more than a collection of feelings, the stamp of an impression, then Etta remembers driving home, tucked into the back-seat of her parents car; she remembers the low sound of their voices, the background noise of rain hitting the windscreen and the warmth of the vehicle, heavy as a blanket. She remembers sitting in the middle seat - head lolling and her eyes fluttering shut - being on the very edge of sleep, tipped toward Morpheus. She remembers feeling safe.
She looks between the three of them and feels nothing of the sort. “Was I adopted?” she jokes, warily.
Walter squints at her and replies just as seriously. “Unless you were raised by wolves? To be frank, I assumed you were adopted after we were encased in amber. But if that wasn’t the scenario…?”
“No,” Peter interrupts. "You weren't adopted; welcome to the family." And then, a little more hesitantly, he adds: "Sorry?"
He hasn’t looked away from her yet, sitting opposite Etta with wonder in his eyes, fingers twitching like Walter’s feet, restless, aching to move after being contained for so long. He held onto Etta tightly in those first few moments - crushed to his ribcage and her face buried against his chest - he felt warm, familiar. She remembered faking sleep as a child, limbs dangling like a ragdoll as her father carried her from the car to the house. He was a giant to her three-year old senses: now he’s just a man, younger than Simon and barely older than herself.
She’d clutched him just as tightly, refused to let go - Dad, Etta said, and no part of it had been forced - she knew this frame, this scent, stamped into her collection of faded trinkets, her beloved and hidden treasure-box.
“If you knew what your mother looked like,” Peter continues, his voice rough. “You wouldn’t need to ask.”
Her heart thumps once, painfully. Look into the mirror, Nina used to say. Peter has her eyes, she thinks distractedly, or maybe Etta has his, cloudy and storm-blue, the threat of lightning hidden. Disturbed, she feels it's safer to ignore any similarities between herself and Walter. She wants to take away the sting from her adoption joke, the awkward sense of not knowing what to say or how to say it, to cover any rawness with a deft hand. Etta believes in miracles, she has to, she wears the crumpled bullet around her neck as a reminder. "I'm very pleased to meet you," Etta says, because she is.
Peter grins at her. “Well, that was ridiculously formal. You could go back to hugging, if you want, I’m good with it.”
“No, you shouldn’t.” Walter repeats, alarmed. “As I was just explaining to Etta, the dangers of genetic attraction…”
“Say what?” Peter says, sounding horrified.
“It’s a fact!”
“We’re finding my wife, not traumatizing our kid.”
And there it is, there it is: certainty like a bedrock, where finding Olivia is a statement and not a question, where Etta's belief in miracles becomes much more tangible. These men aren't the type to sit by idly, and her mother is that much closer to discovery. Etta touches the heavy bullet on the end of her necklace and meets Astrid's eyes.
From across the train, the woman with the dark hair smiles. “Trust me, if it makes you feel better, you inherited Olivia's personality.”